The first time I set eyes on Capybara’s upcoming game Below was at PAX East 2014. I so desperately wanted to grab hold of a controller and become the tiny unnamed adventurer wandering through the dark and mysterious levels shown off on the show floor. Two years later, I finally got my wish.
Capy had three levels on display this year, only two of which I was able to work through in the 30 minutes I had scheduled with them. I wanted to explore every crevice and pick up every item I could find. I had no sense of direction or purpose, I just wanted to explore.
Unfortunately for me, there’s plenty to keep me from wandering about freely. Traps, hazards, packs of unfriendly glowing creatures, thirst and hunger all needed to be kept in mind as I made made my way through each level.
There wasn’t much to guide me as I progressed, either. What exists of menus and UI are minimal with very few words or instructions.
Jim Guthrie is back working with Capy to provide the soundtrack, which in these early moments is as minimal as the rest of the game. The eerie music, unusually zoomed out view, dim lighting, and blurred edges of what’s visible around your adventurer gave me a constant feeling of anticipation. Something had to be coming around the corner or in the next room. Something is building.
I wanted to know more. Who are these adventurers (more on that shortly) that are setting sail towards this forsaken island, and what are they looking for?
I won’t find answers to any of my questions quickly or easily. This feels like a game where I’ll need to put on a good set of headphones, turn out the lights, and let myself get completely lost.
Below includes features that will make it difficult to progress without some amount of purpose. The first of these is permadeath. When your adventurer dies, that’s it. The next hero arrives on the island to try their luck, with almost nothing left over from the previous expedition. You can seek out the corpse of the last adventurer and recover certain items like the magical lantern you carry. There’s only one of these in the game, so it’s always important to track down when lost, no matter how risky that might be.
The levels are procedurally generated, though, so don’t expect to memorize the locations of any hidden areas or follow any previous paths to make your life easier.
Crafting will be essential for survival. Food, bandages, and weapons can all be made from items you pick up off the ground and from the bodies of slain enemies. It’s up to you to figure out the correct combinations.
Fire is your best friend in Below. Lit campfires will not only allow you to stop certain negative effects like bleeding (you can heat your sword to cauterize the wound… ouch), but they will also keep you warm as the temperatures drop the deeper you explore.
Sleeping at a campfire sends you to “The Pocket,” a small safe haven for adventurers, and one of the only places where items you collect can persist between characters. Here you can store weapons, crafting materials, and special items you need to solve some of Below’s puzzles.
I didn’t find any of the latter during my playtime. The demo was packed with extra items to collect to help players try out crafting, which quickly lead to me filling my bags to the brim. I then found a bow and spear, which can be swapped out to replace your normal sword and shield. I was excited to test my skills with the bow right away.
You shouldn’t be surprised at this point to hear that nothing in the game told me I needed to craft arrows. I found this out the old fashioned way by running into a room packed with creatures, bow at the ready. As the glowing geometric insects neared, I pulled the trigger. I pulled it again. I tried other buttons. Nothing happened.
I, of course, died a few times during the demo which I expect is a core experience for the game.
What I’m realizing now is just how little of the game I understand. Mastering the art of survival in Below is going to take time and experience, and I’m looking forward to giving it as much as I can when it releases later this year.
Below is being published by Microsoft Studios and will be available on Xbox One and PC. It has no release date yet, but it’s slated for 2016.